Animals I Have Known
Kelly and I climbed up to the pica colony above our cabin today. As we approached the first rockpile, the familiar “eeep” sounded from the tumbled boulders. We found seats in the rocks and waited patiently. Presently a small tail less mammal emerged, looking more like a guinea pig than a member of the rabbit family to which it belongs. The little fella bounded through the rocks to a patch of grass. Quickly it cut the stalks, gathered up its bundle and scampered back to its rock pile. It is fall and pika everywhere are cutting and curing grasses, which will sustain them through the coming winter. Farther up slope I picked out a large isolated rock pile. For years that was the home of a large (if any pika could be called large) male pika . In the past I would bring groups up here to observe and photograph pikas. Pika, however, would hide when several people approached but I could always count on the big male to come out and say hi. For this I named him Old Faithful for obvious reasons. His grass pile was always positioned under a large overhanging boulder. Protected from the elements, ti was always the best hay stack in the area. When spring would finally come, there was at least 20% of his stack still remaining. One year, on a clear cold February day I snow shoed up to Old Faithful’s rockpile. Of course it was under two feet of snow. Because of the high overhanging boulder, his haystack was almost completely exposed. It was when I approached the haystack I noticed the ermine tracks. They were everywhere crisscrossing the snow covered rockpile. Holes were dotted here and there where the little predator had disappeared under the snow and into the rocks. Weasels are the pikas number one enemy. They are the one predator small enough to enter and traverse the pikas tunnel system. I feared for the worst. Dropping to my knee, I called down into the snow. “Are you ok down there?”. An instant then a muffled “eeep” sounded deep under the snow. I smiled. Of course he’s ok. He didn’t live this long without being able to handle anything that would come along. The following spring I was happy to see him once again scurrying about his castle. A couple more years passed when one fall I was surprised to see his grass pile empty.
Over time we've had many animals our lives for just a short time or years. There was the ermine that spent the winter in our wood pile, the snowshoe hare that would appear under our porch light every night to nibble on sunflower seeds, the partially albino chickadee that wintered at our cabin for two years or the cow elk that spent every evening at our cabin during our first winter.
One of my longest relationships was with a black bear known locally as Rosey. Cindy and I first met her near Roosevelt Junction in the spring of "87. She was being courted by a large black male. As we watched the big black was chased away by a smaller but very aggressive cinnamon bear. The following spring Rosey had one black and one cinnamon cub. This was the last time she would ever have twins. In 1998 she emerged with a single cub, then in 1992 she had triplets. This would be her pattern for the rest of her life. One cub followed by three cubs then one cub then three cubs, then one. Until she had given birth to 15 cubs total. I have many stories about this grand lady bear but I'll relay only two.
It was early June and had snowed all morning. I'd been walking since dawn and was about a mile or so from where my car was parked. Squawking ravens led me to a large Douglas fir. Beneath the trees canopy sat Rosey and her cubs feeding on an elk calf carcass. I backed off and watched from a safe distance. Presently she rolled over onto her back and nursed her yearling cubs. The hog like squealing and grunting sounds carried easily to where I stood. Then something completely unexpected happened. Rosey rolled to her feet and took a swipe at the nearest cub! The dumb founded cubs scattered with their mother in full chase wacking them when ever she got close. One cub went up a tree and she went up after him, breaking branches as she climbed. I figured it was time to leave. The next morning Rosey was being courted by a mean looking black male bear. The cubs were gone. I found two of them later, grazing a half mile away. To have been present the minute Rosey sent her cubs off into the world is some thing I'll never forget.
Years later Rosey and I had a strange encounter in a high meadow above Calcite. I was looking for a great gray owl nest in late May and actually had just spotted it in an old goshawk nest. I'd spent too much time looking up and hadn't noticed Rosey and her three yearling cubs grazing below the nest. I saw them about the same time they me. I'd run into her in the woods before and didn't expect any trouble this time. My objective accomplished (the owl nest) I started back the way I had come. I must have made fifty yards before I realized a cub was following me and behind him another followed by another. And bringing up the rear, Rosey. I walked faster, they quickened their pace. So I slowed down. And there we went across the sage flat. Me leading a parade of bears. 100 yards passed and I tried to shoo the cubs away. They stopped but when I began again they followed. It was getting a little uncomfortable. Ahead of me was timber with a steep drop decline. The second I reached the trees I raced down slope. The bears did not follow. I laughed all the way back to my car glad nobody had witnessed my predicament. Years later, two to three years after Rosey had stopped having cubs, I ran in to her behind Junction Butte. She was grazing above the river where no one would ever bother her. I left her without taking a shot.
Note: The black bear with little red ear tags that has been seen around Tower for the past dozen years or so and routinely has twins every other year is Roseys first cub born in 1987. Those in the know call her Sara but most people refer to her as Rosey not realizing there has been a change of the guard.